The happy demise of the rejection letter

Paul Raven @ 15-06-2010

Much of the recent debate about the future of fiction publishing has focussed on the end product and the distribution (and possible illicit duplication) thereof, but there’s another side to the story – that of the aspiring writer’s experience. Literary agent Nathan Brandsford suggests that the sea change in publishing economics may do away with a much-loathed (though also much obsessed-over) artefact of the process, namely the rejection letter [via Matt Staggs]. That doesn’t mean everyone will get to be J K Rowling, though…

Clay Shirky […] notes that we’re moving from an era where we filtered and then published to one where we’ll publish and then filter. And no one would be happier than me to hand the filtering reins over to the reading public, who will surely be better at judging which books should rise to the top than the best guesses of a handful of publishing professionals.

I don’t see this transition as the demise of traditional publishing or agenting. Roles will change, but there are still some fundamental elements that will remain. There’s more that goes into a book than just writing it, and publishers will still be the best-equipped to maintain the editorial quality, production value, and marketing heft that will still be necessary for the biggest books. Authors will still need experienced advocates to navigate this landscape, place subsidiary rights (i.e. translation, film, audio, etc.), and negotiate on their behalf.

What’s changing is that the funnel is in the process of inverting – from a top down publishing process to one that’s bottom up.

Yes, many (if not most) of the books that will see publication in the new era will only be read by a handful of people. Rather than a rejection letter from an agent, authors will be met with the silence of a handful of sales. And that’s okay!! Even if a book is only purchased by a few friends and family members — what’s the harm?

Bransford is arguing in favour of the crowdsourced curation model, in other words – that what is “good” will succeed in a free market with nigh-nonexistent barriers to entry. And that’s probably true, as far as it goes, but the critic in me wonders about the definition of “good”. We’re still very hung up on the fallacious notion of popularity being an indicator of quality (probably because quality is such a hard thing to define objectively for a subjective experience like reading a story), and a theoretically flat playing field will exacerbate the problem…

… and this is where I think you can say that genres, for all their own problems of objective definition, may be a saving grace in the long run, at least for those of us who like to analyse the things we love. As culture continues to fragment, each little literary clade will construct its own canons in real-time, and each clade will consist of multiple subclades arguing for their own definitions of quality… and then it’s fractal subsubclades all the way down to the individual. This may sound like the horrifying and centreless endgame of postmodernism to some, but I think we’ll be to busy enjoying the opportunity to exercise (and advocate) our own personal preferences to care.


Paul Raven @ 12-04-2010

As part of our seemingly ongoing (though erratic) series of posts with “neuro” in the title, here’s The Guardian on a new bridge discipline between the arts and the sciences: neuro lit crit.

Later this year a group of 12 students in New England will be given a series of specially designed texts to read. Then they will be loaded into a hospital MRI machine and their brains scanned to map their neurological responses.

The scans produced will measure blood flow to the firing synapses of their brain cells, allowing a united team of scientists and literature professors to study how and why human beings respond to complex fiction such as the works of Marcel Proust, Henry James or Virginia Woolf.

What, no sf titles? Surely – if you’re going to engage in such an inherently postmodern activity as neuro lit crit in the first place – you might as well go fully meta, and examine the brain activity of people reading fiction that discusses the science of brain activity…

And here’s another researcher, co-opting literary criticism in the name of advancing that insidious atheistic baby-eating Communo-Darwinist agenda I keep hearing so much about:

Vermeule is examining the role of evolution in fiction: some call it “Darwinian literary studies”. It looks at how human genetics and evolutionary theory shape and influence literature, or at how literature itself may be an expression of evolution. For instance, the fact that much of human fiction is about the search for a suitable mate should suggest that evolutionary forces are at play. Others agree that fiction can be seen as promoting social cohesion or even giving lessons in sexual selection. “It is hard to interpret fiction without an evolutionary view,” said Professor Jonathan Gottschall at Washington and Jefferson College, Pennsylvania.

Hah! That won’t get you far with The Greatest Story Ever Told, “Professor”! If we evolved from dinosaurs, why aren’t there any dinosaurs in the Bible, eh? Tell me that.


Much as with the afore-mentioned neurocinematics, I’m sure someone will hit on the idea of using neuro lit crit for tailoring books that produce the right sort of brain spikes, and prompt a race to the bottom in literary value that will make the pulp magazine explosion look like a damp squib*. I guess our last best hope is that the profit margins will be too small to make it worthwhile… while I’ve complained a few times about wanting a little more science in my fiction, this isn’t what I meant at all. 😉

[ * – Note for the inevitable handful easily-riled genre traditionalists, who will doubtless head straight for the comments box anyway: this sentence is to be read with heavy irony, as is the rest of the post. ]

What will publishing look like a decade from now?

Paul Raven @ 06-01-2010

Via a whole bunch of sources comes this piece by former publisher Richard Nash at Galleycat – an eight-point bullet list of the changes he expects to see in the publishing industry over the next ten years. [image by adactio]

There’s nothing in there that you’ll not have heard from various prophets of hegemonic disruption, but to have a former publisher repeating it on a site which is very much a core industry organ (at least in the online sphere) suggests a certain degree of grudging acceptance of the changes coming down the pike. Here’s a couple of my favourites:

6. In 2020 we will look back on the last days of publishing and realize that it was not a surfeit of capitalism that killed it, but rather an addiction to a mishmash of Industrial Revolution practices that killed it, including a Fordist any color so long as it is black attitude to packaging the product, a Sloanist hierarchical management approach to decision making, and a GM-esque continual rearranging of divisions like deck chairs on the Titanic based on internal management preferences rather than consumer preferences.

7. In 2020 some people will still look back on recent decades as a Golden Age, just as some now look back on the 1950’s as a Golden Age, notwithstanding that the Age was golden largely for white men in tweed jackets who got to edit and review one another and congratulate one another for permitting a few women and the occasional Black man into the club.

I believe the appropriate phrase is “zing”.

New year, old genre: is it time for science fiction to die?

Paul Raven @ 28-12-2009

gravestoneWhile the rest of us were stuffing ourselves with food and alcohol, editor Jetse de Vries was bashing out an essay* re-examining a refrain that’s been heard a few times in the last year or so: is written science fiction dying, is that a good thing, and if not, what should (or could) be done to save it? [image by timparkinson]

Regular readers (or those who know Jetse already) will be quite right to suspect that it’s another variation on his suggestion that science fiction needs to reacquire relevance by not only highlighting the big issues of the day but examining potential solutions to them, rather than revelling on post-apocalyptic gloom. But that’s a massive oversimplification of a fairly wide-ranging essay, so take twenty minutes to read the whole thing – while you may not agree with all of his points, there’s a lot of sound thinking and food for thought in there. Here’s some snips from the conclusion:

SF doesn’t want to (try to) tackle today problems. It just wants to highlight them, exaggerate them into apocalyptic disasters and let the world go down the drain in five hundred different ways. SF is very good at imaging how civilisation (or the world in general) ends: if it only used part of that imagination thinking about solving an actual problem it might have had some more respect from the world at large.

So let’s call it what it is: a failure of the imagination. Yes, quote me on it: ‘most written SF today suffers from a failure of the imagination’. It’s lazy, it avoids doing the hard work.


In short, SF should get off its arse, be totally open to outside influences and other cultures, and get involved with proactive thinking, proudly using science, about the near future.

Previous discussions (including some right here) around these points have highlighted the sharp division of opinion they create. I still find myself somewhat on the fence with respect to “optimistic” science fiction (in that I’d very much like to see more of it, but have no wish to see the demise of the darker flavours), but Jetse’s points about science fiction’s WASPish makeup, plus its perplexing resistance to taking creative risks and breaking with established tradition, hold a great deal of water for me.

That said, I still find myself thinking that the problem is one of imprecise nomenclature; given that it’s still almost impossible to get any three people to agree on a useful working definition of science fiction, maybe we should give up defending the ragged and patchwork flag of a territory whose citizens long since underwent a diaspora into the continent of the cultural mainstream.

[ * To be fair, and knowing Jetse, I fully suspect he did some eating and drinking over the holidays as well… indeed, probably a lot of drinking. 😉 ]

Kim Stanley Robinson asks why science fiction isn’t winning awards; I ask why we should care

Paul Raven @ 17-09-2009

Science fiction heavyweight Kim Stanley Robinson crops up in the current edition of New Scientist to sing the praises of British sf… and of sf in general. In addition to presenting flash-length pieces by a handful of big names – Ken MacLeod, Geoff Ryman, Justina Robson and more – he has a lengthy article decrying the blinkered tastes of the juries for awards like the Booker Prize:

… it seems to me that three or four of the last 10 Booker prizes should have gone to science fiction novels the juries hadn’t read. Should I name names? Why not: Air by Geoff Ryman should have won in 2005, Life by Gwyneth Jones in 2004, and Signs of Life by M. John Harrison in 1997. Indeed this year the prize should probably go to a science fiction comedy called Yellow Blue Tibia, by Adam Roberts.

This is hardly a new complaint – fandom has always muttered darkly into its real ale about the shunning of science fiction by the literary establishment, and this year saw some Guardian book bloggers attempt to redress the imbalance by running an open-nomination “Not The Booker” Prize (only to see all the genre titles swiftly voted out of the running, natch) – but to have it appear on the pages of New Scientist is an interesting development. Indeed, NS seems to be quite deliberately aligning itself with a science fictional/futurist mindset of late; perhaps the editorial team are equally convinced of sf’s didactic and educational powers as Robinson is?

Personally, I’ve always felt that prizes and public acceptance are overrated, and that science fiction does itself a disservice by chasing after them; Robinson appears to me to be taking a similar stance. I’ve never picked books because they won awards; personal recommendation has always carried far more weight, ever since I was quite young.

And if we truly believe that science fiction has the power and potential to open minds (and change them), isn’t the sincere recommendation of a book from friend to friend the best form of evangelism? To use an analogy with science itself: many of the greatest scientific innovators achieved their leaps of progress in spite of great public opposition and the opprobrium of the establishment; rather than kowtow and beg for crumbs of approval, they just knuckled down and got on with it, fueled by their own defiance, converting their few faithful supporters through their unflappable loyalty to their own ideas.

Don’t get me wrong, here: I’d love to see the authors I admire being paid more, or being interviewed as insightful pundits rather than geeky fringe artists who are good for ridiculous out-of-context quotations. I’d love to see science fiction as a powerful and accepted part of modern cultural discourse… but I don’t think it’ll ever achieve that through us pleading for legitimacy on its behalf.

As recent events have shown, hearts and minds aren’t won with shock and awe; they’re won with honesty and sincerity. If you care enough about science fiction that you want to see it read more widely and appreciated as something more than simple escapist entertainment, don’t waste your time storming the ramparts of the crumbling ivory tower of literature, or decrying the inevitably populist results of fan-voted awards. Instead, try to convert one other book-lover. If all of us managed to do that, we’d double the power of the genre almost overnight, and weaken the factional schisms within it at the same time.

Rant over. 😉

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